Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Bended Knee

I will never forget what a thirteen-year-old said to me in the basement of an inner city party hall.

"I looooove to pray!" she exclaimed as the call to prayer went off during a community function. "I love to spread out my prayer rug and pray, don't you?"

I must not have shared her passion or else her words wouldn't have made such an indelible mark in my memory. I was ten then and loved to watch Smurfs on Saturday mornings and play kickball during recess. But to pray five times a day (salat in Arabic)? That was something I did (or tried to do) because I was supposed to.

Forward to today. Those of us still not feeling the love like we ought to--despite years of going through the motions--need to drastically improve our prayers to attain its true benefits.

Prayers, which were taught to Prophet Muhammad (S) in its current form during his ascension to heaven (miraj in Arabic), are a means for a believer to soar to proximity to God. If they are performed with understanding, concentration and attention, prayers transform an individual and transport him/her to true monotheism and closeness to God's pleasure.

"The prayer is a standard of Islam," the Prophet (S) said. "Whoever loves prayers and observes their timings, limits and methods is a true believer." Indeed, prayers are the most important of the religious acts and if they are accepted by God so will all the other acts of worship and vice versa.

To boost the level of our prayers, we should:
  • Pray on time. "If a person prays the obligatory prayers at the beginning of its time and does not attain lofty stations, he should spit in my face," said one esteemed scholar.
  • Understand the meanings of its recitations and movements.
  • Perform supererogatory prayers in seclusion (away from distractions) and while fresh and alert.
  • Detach ourselves (but not abstain) from the material pleasures of this world to avoid flights of ideas during prayers. Those who are able to focus on God throughout the day should have no problem keeping their attention on Him during prayers.
"Successful indeed are the believers who are reverent during their prayers." (Quran 23:1-2)

To reinforce the idea that all our acts should lead us to Him, God obligated adherence to prayers even in the most dangerous and fearful of times.

Hussain, the son of Fatima (one of the perfect women of all times), coupled salat and resistance forever  on the plains of Kerbala, where he and most male members of the Prophet's (S) family were killed protesting tyranny and corruption.

When apprised of the enemy's plan to attack, Hussain asked his brother to "obtain extension of time from them until tomorrow morning so that tonight we may offer prayers to God. God knows that I love to offer prayers, to recite the Quran, to make supplications and to ask His forgiveness."

"Imam Hussain instilled the Quranic culture and ideology of salat in the entire Ummah [Islamic nation] for all times to come," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

Eventually, Hussain lost all his comrades and was the last man standing, horrifically wounded from head to toe. But when he heard the call to Asr prayer, he returned his sword to its sheath, slid down from his horse and rested his forehead in prostration on the burning sand.

There he uttered his last words: "O, All Merciful Lord of the Universe, accept the humble sacrifice of Hussain!"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Finding Mr. Right(eous)

I probably wouldn't have married my husband had I not inadvertently tuned in to a conservative talk radio station a few weeks before we met.

The host's advice to women on how to find Mr. Right caught my ear. Make a list of three qualities essential in your future spouse, he said, and seriously consider anyone you meet who has those traits. 

That seemed like a novel idea considering I (and many other single girls around me) had spent years rejecting proposals for random things ("We didn't click!" "He doesn't have a sense of humor!" "What a FOB!"*).  Having gotten mixed messages from American, Bollywood and our traditional cultures, many of us were a mess when it came to figuring out who to marry successfully and how to go about doing it.

Had we worked within God's clear guidelines on spouse selection, we could have saved ourselves and our parents much undue hardship.

Like everything else in life, we are supposed to get married to bring us closer to God.

"And they say: 'Our Lord, let our spouses and our children be a source of joy for us, and keep us in the forefront of the righteous." (Quran 25:74)

"You marry one another with the intention that I will try to bring this person to Paradise with me," says scholar Usama Abdul-Ghani.

Prophet Muhammad (S) taught us not only to have a standard but also what that standard should be. 

"It is binding upon you to have a religious spouse," he said.

"A man who marries a person for the sake of her wealth, God leaves him in his own condition," according to the Prophet (S). "One who marries her (only) for her beauty, will find in her things he dislikes (unpleasing manners). God will gather up all these things for one who marries her for the sake of her faith (religiousness)."

While religiousness is the most important criterion, we are also supposed to consider a propective's good  nature, compatibility, decent family, reasoning ability and physical and mental health.

The Prophet's (S) daughter Fatima Zahra (one of the four perfect women) and her husband Ali revealed their basis for valuing one another in the following exchange. 

The day after their wedding, the Prophet (S) came to visit them and inquired of Ali: "How do you find your spouse?"

"I found Zahra as the best help in worshipping God Almighty," Ali replied.

The Prophet asked Fatima the same question and she said: "He is the best husband."

Spouse selection is not left to personal choice only because the decision's effects are so widespread. When we choose a spouse we are also selecting the father/mother of our future children.

"Islam aims to perfect man even before he is born, before his parents marry, by stating what kind of spouse a man and a woman should choose," says Imam Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. "Why does it do this? Because the husband and wife are the origin of the individual(s) and Islam wants these individuals, who are to be handed over to society, to be religious individuals."

To further help ensure that a girl (who's tying the knot for the first time) is marrying the right person, God has mandated that she make this decision under the guidance and with the permission (not rubber stamp) of no other than her own father. 

For those single or married, poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi sums up our end goal beautifully:

"Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourselves that you have built against it."
*FOB--Fresh Off the Boat, reference to recent immigrants

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On a Wing and a Prayer

I learned hope from an elderly woman who's been praying for a grandson for more than a quarter century and continues to do so though none of her daughters-in-law are spring chicks any more.

While she loves and adores her slew of granddaughters (Praise be to God), she emphatically remains hopeful that, well, one of these days she'll finally be buying blue, God willing.

Despite the odds, hope can take her a long way.

"Whatever hope you attach to God," says scholar Abbas Ayleya, "God will do according to your hopes, God willing."

To illustrate the power of hope, God shares the sincere and secret supplication of Prophet Zachariah, the 99-year-old uncle of Maryam (one of the four perfect women):

"My Lord! Surely, my bones are weakened and my head flares with hoariness and my Lord! I have never been unsuccessful in my prayer to thee: And surely I fear my cousins after me, and my wife is barren, therefore grant me from Thyself an heir who would inherit me and inherit from the children of Jacob, and make him, my Lord, one in whom Thou art well-pleased.'" (Quran 19:4)

God responds: "O Zachariah! We give you good news of a boy whose name shall be Yahya (John in English). We have not made before anyone his equal." (19:7)

Likened to the two wings of a bird, hope in God's Mercy must be balanced in our hearts with equal fear of His displeasure and punishment if we want to soar to nearness to Him. Too much hope invites false security and continued disobedience while excess fear leads to despair, which scholars say is the second greatest sin after shirk (associating others with God).

"Surely, none despairs of God's mercy except the unbelieving people." (12:87)

After tolerating decades of brutal oppression, people around the world are waking up to renewed hope in a peaceful and just future. Indeed, their great expectation of God's promised deliverance inspires many to struggle onwards.

Later this month, for example, an American boat carrying thousands of letters of friendship with Palestinians is set to sail to Gaza to protest Israel's siege and blockade. The boat is aptly named "Audacity of Hope."

To the young Bahraini protestors facing horrific suppression, Sami Yusuf's ditty "I am Your Hope" gives much encouragement.

You are the hope for our globe,
Don't give up nor despair,
There's nothing you can't repair,
You can change this world to a better world 
With your souls, with your souls,

Do not harm me, I am your truth,
Don't kill me for I'm your youth,
I am your hope, I am your truth,
I'm your faith, I'm your youth

"We cannot live without hope because hope is intrinsic to human nature," said Roy Berkenbosch of King's University College at a conference on Islamophobia and the Politics of Fear last month. "It is life lived leaning into the future. It is life tilted toward tomorrow, expecting what is today is not equal to what is tomorrow."

I wonder if the elderly lady has heard the latest news: a distant relative of hers is expecting a baby in her granny years!! That's sure to keep her hope alive!  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Locks of Love

My five-year-old threw me for a curve the other day when she apologized for a fit she had a year ago when checking herself out in a beauty shop mirror.

"Remember when I was crying because the hairdresser didn't make my hair long when I went in for a haircut?" she asked sheepishly. "Awww, I'm sorry for that!"

Grabbing her in a bear hug, I marveled at her ability to realize the absurdity of her demand, feel remorse for causing me trouble and then offer a heartfelt apology.

At the same time, I couldn't help but reflect--especially in this sacred month of Rajab, which is associated with seeking forgiveness from God--on our duty to repent for all the sins we have commited.

God says: "And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord," (Quran 3:132) and "But those who do wrong but repent thereafter and (truly) believe,--verily thy Lord is thereafter Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." (7: 153)

While striving to perfect ourselves on our journey to nearness to God, we are bound to make mistakes and get off course. In His Infinite Mercy, God offers us tawba (Arabic word for repentance which literally means "turn or return from one thing to another") as a U-turn to get back on the straight path to Him.

Like alerts on a navigation system, it is God who first turns to us by reminding us that we have erred. To those who heed His warning and do tawba, "He opens His arms," says scholar Hamza Sodagar. Indeed, God loves repentance and rewards those who do it by giving them abundance in this world and converting their bad deeds into good deeds for the Hereafter. 

To be accepted, tawba must include remorseful repentance over the past, firm determination not to repeat offenses, discharging the rights of people previously ignored and fulfillment of obligatory acts left undone.

"A sincere repenter never sins again as the milk drawn from the breast never can go back to its source," says Prophet Muhammad (S).

The sooner tawba is done the better.

"The springtime for tawba is the time of youth when the sins are fewer, the inner darkness of the heart incomplete, the conditions of tawba easier and their fulfillment less difficult," said Imam Khomeini, scholar and architect of the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Of course, to up our chances of being forgiven by God we must liberally pardon those who wrong us.

Hussain, the son of Fatima (one of the four perfect women), demonstrated magnanimous clemency on the plains of Kerbala, where he and most male members of the Prophet's (S) family were killed while opposing the unjust ruler Yazid. At the eleventh hour, Hur, a high-ranking commander in Yazid's army, came to Hussain's tent and asked: "Is my repentance acceptable?"

Hussain said: "Hur! I have already forgiven you. Your mother named you Hur, which means free. You are free in this world and the Hereafter." Then Hussain added: "I consider you to be my honored guest."

Indeed, to be able to truly reform societies lost and heading in the wrong direction like Hussain did, we must continuously do tawba to rid ourselves of the oppressive sins that lead us astray.

Lately, my daughter's been fussing because her straight hair won't curl up into ringlets (like her friend's wavy locks do) when I pull it into ponytails.

I suppose I'll have to ride it out until she has another aha! moment.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Miss Manners

Perched high up on a sofa in our family room earlier this year, it was my preschooler who first noticed the check mark on her progress report as she carefully perused it.

"What does this say?" she asked, pointing to the text next to the tick mark.

"It says your manners--things like saying please and thank you--need improvement," I told her, embarrassed by what I was reading over her shoulder.

Indeed, perfecting our akhlaq (Arabic term for ethics, morals and manners) is a work in progress, and this was a good reminder that our family needed to pay more attention to ours!

God declares Prophet Muhammad (S) as the epitome of impeccable akhlaq when he says to him: "Certainly, you are upon the best morals." (Quran 68:4)

Based on the personality of the Prophet (S), there are four main aspects of akhlaq we must focus on: wisdom, chastity, valour and justice. Other qualities (48 in number), such as piety, patience, generosity and humility, are branches of these four merits.

Our salvation depends on whether or not we develop these moral attributes.

"If there is someone who is bad in his morals, God does not accept his [repentance] because this type of person comes out of one sin and enters another," says scholar Abbas Ayleya.

The Prophet's (S) daughter Fatima--whose name comes from the Arabic word for "the one who is kept away from evil and bad character"--is a female role model of ideal akhlaq as she always took the highest moral ground, even on her big day.

The Prophet (S) had gotten a new dress made for her wedding when a beggar knocked on the door asking for old clothes. Fatima remembered the Quranic verse (3:92), "By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give (freely) of that which ye love (prefer)," and gave away her new one. Overwhelmed by his daughter's generosity, the father of the bride wept upon hearing this.

"I have never seen anyone resemble the Prophet (S) in his way of dealing with people or character more than Fatima," the Prophet's (S) wife Aisha said.

The "Supplication for Noble Moral Traits" (expressed by Fatima's grandson Zain-ul-Abideen) describes some of the characteristics we need to aspire to:

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household
and point me straight to
resist him who is dishonest toward me with good counsel,
repay him who separates from me with gentle devotion,
reward him who deprives me with free giving,
recompense him who cuts me off with joining,
oppose him who slanders me with excellent mention
give thanks to good and shut my eyes to evil!

As difficult as it seems, those of us aiming to emulate women like Fatima must cultivate such traits in ourselves, our children and our societies.

Imam Khomeini, (about whom an associate once said, "He wasn't negligent on even a single point of akhlaq,") strived to implement ethics on a broader scale through the Islamic  Revolution of Iran and encouraged women to do their part.

"The ladies must act on their social and religious duties and protect public morality," he said, "and in doing so carry out their social and political activities."

Understandably, I was over the moon two weeks ago when my daughter brought home an award for "Good Manners" on her final day of preschool.

My celebration was cut short, however, when her sister got whiff of the accolade.

"I'm surprised," she said to her little sister's face. "I'm very surprised."

Like I said, good akhlaq is a work in progress, especially in our house.